IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Iowa Hawkeyes are who the Illini thought they were. And they let ‘em off the hook.
The chances were there for the taking on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, but the University of Illinois (6-5, 4-4 Big Ten) didn’t convert and No. 19 Iowa (8-3, 5-3 Big Ten) prevailed, 19-10.
“Coach Smith said we let them off the hook,” offensive tackle Vederian Lowe said. “We had a bunch of opportunities. Even us as players, we know we let them off the hook.”
The score is a stark difference from last year’s 63-0 drubbing in Champaign. But after winning four straight games headed in, the Illini were frustrated rather than seizing on some distinct positives.
The Hawkeyes came in with a known identity. They run the ball a lot and defend the heck out of opponents, allowing just 12.4 points on average.
Illinois rushed for more yards than any other team has against Iowa this season (192) and only gave up 79 yards on the ground. Iowa could only muster one touchdown.
But they outplayed the Illini at their own game, turning them over three times and only coughing up the ball on Nate Stanley’s second-quarter interception — of which Illinois failed to take advantage.
“We had a lot of opportunities,” Smith said. “Each game we won, we talked about the turnover ratio. I’m going to do the same thing right now. When you’re minus two in the turnover ratio, that’s tough. It’s kind of as simple as that. One takeaway is not good enough.”
Failure to convert on defensive stops. An interception in the end zone. Giving up eight pass plays of over 20 yards. A late fumble while driving in the fourth quarter. Nearly sacking Stanley 10 yards deep in the backfield, then giving up a 40-yard pass down the sideline. The list of blown chances and golden opportunities could go on longer.
The biggest mistake Illinois made fell on Smith.
With 2 minutes 26 seconds before halftime, Illinois got the ball at its own 29-yard line trailing 10-7 with all three timeouts left. Illinois moved with little haste and ran the ball twice in five plays, letting 1:52 run off the clock before calling a timeout at the Iowa 45-yard line, just at the edge of kicker James McCourt’s range.
The next play, Iowa was called for pass interference, and Illinois threw three passes — completing one — to advance to the Iowa 37 for a fourth-and-four situation with 16 seconds left.
Rather than attempt a 55-yard field goal, Smith burned two timeouts in a row. On fourth-and-six, Peters was immediately overrun by Iowa defenders and was sacked, giving the Hawkeyes the ball at the Illinois 49-yard line with 12 seconds left.
In one play, Iowa advanced 22 yards via a pass to Tyrone Tracy, setting up Duncan for a 45-yard field goal to stretch the lead to 13-7 at the break.
After the game, Smith said the decision he was mulling over was whether to punt or go for it, not take a field goal.
“Punt the ball,” Smith said. “Start with that. Bad, bad coaching move. My fault on that. If I had to do it over again, I would punt the ball.”
In the fourth quarter, after Iowa tacked on two more field goals, Illinois needed more than one score to equalize. Against a rigid Iowa defense, one touchdown was all the offense could muster.
The Illini’s only touchdown came on a 31-yard reception for Donny Navarro, which tied the game at seven with 6:26 to go in the first quarter.
Late in the game, down 16-10, the Illini offense stalled out in the red zone, which resulted in a 28-yard field goal from McCourt.
When Iowa got the ball back, the defense came up big with another three-and-out, giving the offense a shot to put Illinois in front.
And the Illini were driving too, but a Peters fumble at midfield with 7:46 to play set the stage for a clock-draining, scoring drive for Iowa that Duncan capped with a chip-shot 29-yard field goal with 2:44 to play.
Gavin Good is the University of Illinois correspondent for GateHouse Media Illinois. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Twitter.com/itsallG_O_O_D.